The X's and O's: Beating The Odds
How LSU won in spite of the numbers game on Jeremy Hill’s 47-yard run
By Billy GomilaPosted Oct 24, 2012
It’s one of the oldest sayings in amateur football analysis: “If you don’t throw the football, teams will stack the box and stop your running game.”
Only it doesn’t usually hold up as well as people like to believe. Every year there are teams in college football that find ways to have a very productive rushing attack despite lacking a very good passing game. LSU is one obvious example of this in recent seasons – from Stevan Ridley’s 1,000-yard rushing season in 2010 to this current Tiger squad, which managed to average 8.1 yards per carry on first down Saturday at Texas A&M, despite a steady diet of eight- and nine-men defensive fronts.
Specifically, when people talk about “stacking the box,” they are referring to the area within the first 7-10 yards of the line of scrimmage. Defenses will try to use an extra defensive back, typically a safety, to assist their front seven defensive line and linebackers against running plays. Essentially, use more defenders than the offense can block.
This was the case on Jeremy Hill’s 47-yard, game-clinching touchdown run. The Aggies had nine total defenders within those first seven yards: four linemen, three linebackers, plus a safety and a cornerback who didn’t have a wide receiver to cover on his side of the field. And yet, the Tigers ran right at it with one of their most basic plays, the “inside zone” run, sometimes also called the “lead” or “iso.”
In the diagrammed picture, LSU lines up in the I-formation, with fullback J.C. Copeland lined up directly in front of Hill, with two tight ends on the line of scrimmage, in addition to the offensive line. From there, the offensive line zone-blocks, just as they do on the “stretch,” or outside-zone running play we’ve described before in this column. Only, rather than taking a step backwards before continuing up the field, the offensive line all immediate block to their right, taking the first player in front of them. Once again, if there isn’t a defender in the immediate area, the linemen will help the man to their right with the man in front of them, and continue up the field until he has somebody to block. In this case, guards La’El Collins and Trai Turner are the ones on the move. Collins combined with Josh Dworaczyk to pulverize the defensive tackle in front of them, driving him into the weakside linebacker lined up behind him. Turner moved to the strongside linebacker, who was attempting to fill the gap in between the nose tackle and defensive end. Meanwhile, P.J. Lonergan, Vadal Alexander, Nic Jacobs and Chase Clement all blocked players lined up over them – in Jacobs’ case, this was the cornerback. Copeland takes a similar step forward to the linemen, aiming for the first man to arrive in the hole between the guard and the center. In this case, that leads to him to Aggie middle linebacker Jonathan Stewart, who attempted to flow with the direction of the play.
Defensive players are taught to key on the movement of blockers and fit into a specific gap between two players, and the Aggie defenders are doing just that. But sometimes that movement can put them exactly where the offensive linemen want them. In the case of Texas A&M’s strongside linebacker and strong safety, they find themselves “caught in the wash,” a coaching term for wedged in between the tight spaces of the offensive and defensive linemen and essentially removed from a play. Due to that flow, a huge lane opened up slightly to the left of where Hill was heading, between Lonergan and Collins. Hill makes the correct read, explodes through that crease, and 10 yards later, it’s clear that no Aggie defender will have a chance to catch him.
Part of the beauty of zone blocking, is that it allows a smart running back to take whatever the defense gives him. Once the play is in motion, if his blockers are doing their job they will create space in the defense, the runner merely has to find it. Good running teams commit to this style of play for that very reason. And in the case of Hill’s big play, LSU successfully showed that the defense’s numbers advantage is irrelevant if the players aren’t in the right place at the right time.